Four years after his electrifying Beijing double, Usain Bolt remains track's most thrilling performer and its economic engine—but can he win in London?
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
FIRST COMES the shoe company publicist, rushing in from the Southern California sunlight to the refrigerated air and shadowy lighting of a Hollywood soundstage rigged for a photo shoot. Usain Bolt is on his way, she says. There is music playing: Jamaican reggae diva Patra's 1993 song Whining Skill, dance-mixed by D.J. Reggie Stepper and Super Beagle. This is good because Usain likes music while he works. Now others arrive at the studio: Two more men from the shoe company Puma and another who is working with Bolt on a video game. Then Bolt's British agent and his partner. Finally Bolt and Nugent (N.J.) Walker, a lifelong friend from the island who works as Bolt's personal manager.
Bolt surveys the massive room and makes eye contact. We have talked several times previously--sometimes in private, sometimes across the steel barrier that separates media from athletes at competitions. The track world is relatively small. Bolt points to his eyes and then at me, a little like DeNiro to Stiller in the Focker movies, though not menacingly. This moment of recognition is a source of relief to his entourage because a previous day's interviewer had flunked Bolt 101 by failing to know that Bolt had false-started out of the 100 meters at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and things had proceeded awkwardly from there.
We are in track and field's brief off-season. In the ensuing months many other interviews will be arranged with other athletes for other track stories, most through a single phone call or e-mail. But Bolt, 25, is different. Bolt is a record-smashing performance artist, an outsized animation of speed and personality that transcends not just his sport but all sport. He is, manifestly, a celebrity, the only one in his game. "Without Bolt," says U.S. shot-putter Adam Nelson, a three-time Olympian, "I suppose we have no sport."
In London, Bolt will attempt to become the first person to win the 100 and 200 at consecutive Olympics. His performances will not be soliloquies; Bolt was beaten by countryman Yohan Blake in both races at the Olympic trials. But whoever crosses the line first, the races will be characterized as having been won or lost by Bolt. He is the barometer by which the sport is measured. "Now he is Ali," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon. "The Ali who lost to Frazier and then beat Foreman. He's going to lose every now and then, but then he's going to be even bigger because of those losses."
IN THE spring of 2008 track and field was approaching the abyss. Throughout the modern professional era (since roughly the late 1970s), there had always been a superstar to bring track into the public spotlight at least occasionally and make it a viable career option for lesser lights. British middle-distance runners like Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett gave way to Carl Lewis, who gave way to Michael Johnson, who gave way to Haile Gebrselassie, who gave way to Marion Jones and Maurice Greene. Yet as the '08 Olympics approached, the two biggest names in the sport were sprinters Tyson Gay, a reserved American who would soon begin accumulating injuries, and Asafa Powell, a wildly fast Jamaican with a record of shrinking on the biggest stage. Neither could carry the sport.
Meanwhile, that sport was losing meets. In 2007, before the global economic crisis struck, there were nearly 70 international competitions from late April to late September. "My early days on the circuit, in 2005, '06, '07, I could run a race every other day and nickel-and-dime my way to a decent living just with prize money," says David Oliver of the U.S., bronze medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the Beijing Games. "I didn't even need [shoe/apparel company] sponsorship." A year later, in '08, there were barely 40 meets worldwide.
Into this void sprinted Bolt, a onetime prodigy (in 2004, at age 17, he had become the youngest man to break 20 seconds in the 200 meters) turned apparent underachiever. "I wasn't into practice," he says. "I wasn't really trying." Going into 2008, Bolt had run personal bests of 10.03 in the 100 (an event he'd contested infrequently) and 19.75 in the 200, but in '08 he became the fastest man in history at both distances. He twice broke the 100 world record, including in the Olympic final, in which he ran 9.69 seconds while famously celebrating before the finish line. Four days later in Beijing he pared .02 off Johnson's seemingly unassailable 200 record of 19.32. At 6'5", with strides of almost 10 feet, he made his races seem unfair.
And when those races were finished, Bolt became even more entertaining. He struck the To Di World finger-pointing pose he had taken from a Jamaican tourism campaign ("I made it 'Me, To Di World,'" says Bolt) and danced before and after his races. Track had seen showmen before: Greene was known for flexing and posturing before getting into the blocks. But track had never seen a showman who was also evolving the sport in record-destroying leaps. In a celebrity-centric culture it was an incendiary combination.
At those Beijing Olympics, NBC had just begun to contemplate a possible Michael Phelps ratings hangover (swimming takes place in the first week, track in the second) when Bolt took the stage. A surprising thing happened: The network's ratings among younger viewers, those aged 18 to 24, went up. "We saw an increase of 50 percent in the demographic during the second week," says John Miller, NBC's chief marketing officer. "We can't say for sure that all of that was Usain Bolt, but we feel that some of it was."
The phenomenon did not abate in 2009. Bolt broke both his records at the world championships in Berlin, lowering the 100-meter mark to 9.58 and the 200 to 19.19, both of which were unthinkable barely a year before.
In 2010, Bolt signed a multiyear contract with Puma that is believed to be one of the richest ever for an athlete for whom the Olympics are the pinnacle event (i.e., not U.S. professionals or international soccer players), at nearly $10 million per year. The cost for signing Bolt to run a one-day meet, while a closely kept secret among promoters and subject to nondisclosure agreements, has been reported at $250,000.
Despite this astronomic fee, meets clamor for his participation. "When you have Usain Bolt, you have a sellout, you have happy sponsors, you have happy TV," says Alfons Juck, who has been promoting meets in Europe for 27 years and is currently meet manager of the Golden Spike Invitational in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, where Bolt has run in six of the last eight years, including this year. "No other name attracts interest like him. None of the other great athletes of the past—Carl Lewis, Sergey Bubka—have been like Bolt."
That reality is more than athletic. Like Juck, Patrick Magyar has been a promoter in Europe for nearly three decades and currently is director of the Weltklasse meet in Zurich. "Usain is in a special category, a cultural phenomenon," says Magyar. "He doesn't make a meet good or bad, he makes it glamorous. Bolt, he shadows all the others."
The other athletes know it. Two days before the Ostrava meet U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones tweeted, "When @usainbolt is at a race, I'm the free bread they serve b4 the meal. U don't want my autograph kid? No, I don't know where Usain is...." When Bolt arrived at Franklin Field during the 2010 Penn Relays, the crowd reaction was so wild that U.S. sprinter Miki Barber said, "Did the President just get here?"
Whether this helps the sport in general, or just Usain Bolt, is difficult to measure. With fewer meets, the economic model has changed: Athletes need sponsorship money to survive. It's possible that Bolt is so economically dominant—"The figure we hear is that Bolt takes up 80 percent of all the money in track and field," says U.S. 800-meter Olympian Nick Symmonds—that others are left to fight for his table scraps. It's also possible that Bolt's presence alone is what makes the sport viable and allows others to secure endorsement deals. From his fellow athletes, there is little resentment and, moreover, genuine affection.
"Businesswise, people come to watch Bolt," says Oliver. "We're the warmup act. But if you deliver a jaw-dropping performance, you're going to be seen, because Bolt brings that audience. Personally, he's approachable. I've chopped it up with him a few times."
While Nelson dislikes one-man marketing, he admires Bolt. "He's a great person," says Nelson. "Nothing but professional. A great ambassador for the sport."
Paul Doyle, the agent for Powell as well as for U.S. decathletes Ashton Eaton, Trey Hardee and Bryan Clay, says, "Bolt is the highest-paid athlete in the history of track and field, but he's also probably the most underpaid athlete in the history of track and field."
THE DANCING, gesticulating, comically dominating character of Usain Bolt springs from the personality of a tall, silly kid who has always preferred play to work. That persona has grown with Bolt; it has encircled his celebrity in obvious ways, and Bolt has nurtured it appropriately. Little that he does is spontaneous. His To Di World pose was planned and choreographed long before the Beijing 100. A 2 Fast 2 Furious "your-engine's-too-small" gesture sprung from practice hectoring with training partners. Last year in Deagu he watched a stadium video in which the event mascot shhh-ed the crowd before the gun, and then mimicked it before winning the gold medal in the 200 meters, cracking up as he did it. "People like that stuff," says Bolt. "People laugh. And it keeps me relaxed."
Bolt explains that his attitude quashes anxiety under pressure and helps make him so good on the biggest stage. For nearly two years after Berlin 2009 he missed that stage. In 2010 he missed the second half of the season with the recurrence of back problems that have surfaced regularly since he was a teenager, and he struggled to regain form throughout much of '11. His best 100-meter time since '09 is 9.76 seconds; his fastest 200-meter time in that span is 19.40 in winning the Daegu worlds, but he has run only nine 200 finals since Berlin.
Most notably, last summer Bolt was disqualified for false-starting in the 100 final at worlds, a race that was won by Blake, his then 21-year-old training partner. That race was to be Bolt's return to invincibility, but instead he watched it from a tunnel inside the stadium. "People say I was worried about Yohan beating me," says Bolt. "It wasn't that. It was because I was gonna go! It had been a long time. I was finally feeling good."
Two weeks later Blake ran a stunning 19.26 in a 200 in Brussels; it was faster than Johnson's mythic 19.32 in Atlanta and second only to Bolt's 19.19 world record. "I was surprised," says Bolt. "Come on, everybody was surprised. I train with him every day. I knew when he got the hang of running the corner, he might run 19.50. But when I saw that 19.26, I was like, Whoa. But it's good for the sport."
And before his defeats in Kingston at the Jamaican trials, it hadn't dulled Bolt's confidence. "When I do what I do, I can't lose," he says. "I've said year after year that nooo-body is going to run past me. You've got to try and get out and get away from me, and that's very hard to do. I don't worry about it." True enough, Bolt started poorly in the 100 meters in the trials and never caught Blake. But in the 200, Blake flat-out walked down Bolt in the final 70 meters. Within days Bolt was at Dr. Hans-Wilhelm M√ºller-Wohlfahrt's Munich clinic for what had presented as a hamstring problem but was centered in Bolt's troublesome back. ("Anytime I have a hamstring problem, I go get my back checked," Bolt told SI last fall. "It always starts with my back.")
Bolt pulled out of a July 20 meet in Monaco that was scheduled to have been his last race before London. Track insiders will consider him no more than a co-favorite with Blake in a wide-open 100 that also features Powell and resurgent Americans Gay and Justin Gatlin (sidebar, below). Blake will be a clear favorite in the 200. Yet like Ali, Bolt will command the stage in victory or defeat. His presence still defines his sport.
While NBC readies for a full dose of U.S. swimmers, gymnasts and volleyball players, it also throws open a window for Bolt. "There is something captivating about him," says NBC's Miller. "He transcends nationalism."
Bolt understands that, too. He is nothing if not self-aware. On the training track he has been telling Blake what lies ahead. You guys have no idea. He rises up at the thought. "People say I'm big," says Bolt. "I say no, but after these Olympics if I can do what I did in Beijing, I'm gonna blow up. Oh, my God." Here he takes his baritone down notches and speaks as if narrating his own life story with deep solemnity: "I'll be Usain Bolt," he says. "The legend." And it may be a joke, and it may be real, and it certainly may not happen now. But it is all part of the show.